PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy has an interesting piece up about long-form online content. The short of it is that readers seemingly flock to longer pieces online, and they have a greater shelf-life, too. The problem: industry conditions (i.e. churn-oriented writing) have ‘trained’ newcomers to prioritise speed over quality. Editors are therefore finding it increasingly tough to find new talent, and tend to use freelancers they already know well; additionally, newcomers aren’t being trained in how to write and research.
This more or less matches what I’ve heard from editors, but Lacy leaves out some important points. First, money is almost glossed over in her article, and that’s the main thing that’s impacted on quality writing. I’ve been writing professionally since the late 1990s, and in all that time magazine rates have only risen in a few cases; more often, rates have dropped or ‘transferred’ over to internet rates that are lower than print ones for essentially the same content. This situation forces even seasoned writers to speed up, or to work extra hours and reduce their quality of life.
Secondly, there’s the issue of a support network. Although I pride myself on rigorously editing and proofing copy before I file it (something that, I’m told, is surprisingly not ubiquitous among freelancers), I’m overjoyed when my work is filtered through the lens of a great sub-editor. There’s always a slight jolt on reading something and thinking “that’s not what I wrote”, and then a warm glow when I realise what the sub’s created is better. Usually, the changes are subtle, but when subbing is done well I hugely appreciate it. But subbing costs money, and support networks have in recent years been obliterated, especially online. In part, speed is to blame: getting things online quickly has been more important than accuracy or finely honed writing. But also there’s the problem that good subs cost money and are wrongly often considered unimportant in the scheme of things.
Thirdly, some writers don’t realise that long-form writing isn’t about churning out thousands of words. Every sentence—if possible, every word—should matter. If something’s superfluous, get rid of it. That doesn’t mean removing character from writing (humorous asides, for example, can be wonderful when used sparingly and with care), but nonetheless recognising when it wouldn’t be detrimental if a paragraph or two happened to be removed. So often, I read long-form articles online that could have easily been written in a third of the space. There’s a lack of discipline evident in the industry, and although that in part comes from the things Lacy mentions—an emphasis on speed; a lack of mentoring—it’s also down to a lack of money and a reduction in the support network for writers. Until all of these things change, I don’t see a rosy future for widespread long-form writing online, only for those publications and writers already making a good job of it.